New Republican "Consumer Protection" Plan: Unabated Climate Change, Air Pollution, and Higher Prices

Yesterday, House and Senate Republicans revealed a new tactic in their war against the Clean Power Plan, the EPA proposal to curb carbon pollution: Pass legislation permitting states to “just say no” to the rule, as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been urging the states to do. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) each released legislation that would let states opt out of the Clean Power Plan, purportedly to protect their electricity consumers (among other reasons).

Is this the same party that just proposed slashing support for public housing, food assistance, and home energy bills? Yes, and it hasn’t suddenly decided to help struggling American families. These new pieces of legislation are every bit as anti-consumer.

Whitfield released a “discussion draft” that would exempt a state  from the Clean Power Plan if the governor determines that complying would “have a significant adverse effect” on ratepayers by raising electricity rates or on reliability of the state’s electricity grid. Portman filed an amendment to the Senate budget resolution suggesting that states should be allowed to opt out of the Clean Power Plan if, among other things “ a Governor or legislative body of a State determines that the requirements of that section [section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, which authorizes the Clean Power Plan] would increase retail electricity prices with a disproportionate impact on low-income or fixed-income households . . . .”*

Both pieces of legislation reflect major misunderstandings of the Clean Power Plan, and they would harm consumers considerably. Here’s why:

The Clean Power Plan will benefit consumers by mitigating climate change. Climate change poses a severe threat to American consumers, and in particular to vulnerable populations. A few of the most salient risks include:

  • higher taxes and market prices to cover the costs of widespread damage to infrastructure and other property from extreme weather;
  • diminished quality and higher prices for food and water, heightening food insecurity for America’s most vulnerable populations; and
  • increased illness and disease from extreme heat events, reduced air quality, and increased food-borne, water-borne, and insect-borne pathogens.

The Clean Power Plan will benefit consumers by curbing carbon pollution, which will mitigate these harms. The Plan will also reduce other forms of pollution from the nation’s dirtiest power plants, like emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury. As a result, it will boost public health further, reducing both premature deaths and non-fatal cardiovascular disease.

The Clean Power Plan will lower consumers’ electricity bills. The Clean Power Plan should lower consumer costs, not raise them, because it will spur improvements in energy efficiency. Although electricity prices may rise modestly under the Plan, consumers will use less electricity, resulting in lower bills overall. The EPA projects that the Plan will lower consumer bills by 8.4 percent by 2030. A Public Citizen analysis suggests that the EPA  estimate is conservative, overestimating the cost of efficiency programs and underestimating how much progress the states can make on efficiency. Consumer costs are likely to decline by even more than the agency projects.

States should serve their consumers and protect vulnerable populations. If these consumer benefits don’t materialize, then it is likely the states, not the EPA, that will bear responsibility. The states can take a lead role in implementing the Clean Power Plan by writing their own compliance plans. State policymakers can choose to implement the Plan in a manner that benefits or harms consumers and protects or burdens vulnerable populations. State governments have a responsibility to serve their citizens and protect vulnerable communities. The amendment is wrong to excuse the states from those duties and suggest that the responsibility for harming consumers lies with section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, a statute that protects the public by safeguarding our health.

What’s really going on here is a familiar story: Congressional Republicans are using consumer protection as an excuse to advance the interests of fossil-fuel companies. Undermining the Clean Power Plan would harm American families, making them sicker and raising the cost of basic household needs like food and electricity.

*Technically, the Portman amendment would permit the Chairman of the Budget Committee to revise the allocations in the budget resolution in light of later legislation permitting states to opt out of the Clean Power Plan for the reasons above. Members of Congress often discuss these matters as if they actually make law rather than just contemplate hypothetical future legislation.